Book Review: Malta 1940-42

Osprey Publishing have recently released their newest series- Air Campaign- which discusses some of history’s greatest air battles. This is the fourth title in the series since they released four titles early this year. The book talks about the Axis air raids on the British-controlled island of Malta. Malta, a crucial naval base for the North African Campaign, sits off the coast of Sicily and prompted Mussolini’s Air Force (Regio Aeronautica) to lead multiple assaults on the island. As years dragged on, the X and II Fliegerkorps of the Luftwaffe arrived on the scene to attempt to neutralize the Allied presence in the Mediterranean. Steady reinforcements from the British mainland helped the Allies survive in a crucial campaign for North Africa and the later campaign in Italy.

Osprey’s Newest Series: Air Campaign

Praise:

The ORBAT is really nice here with information on all of the planes used in that particular squadron. There’s a description of some of the main aircraft used which is helpful for people who aren’t very familiar with planes. There are also handy charts comparing dimensions, engines, and armament of numerous planes. The illustrations and photographs are all good, as you’d expect from Osprey

Criticism:

The maps in this book look nice, but make no sense. Some of the numbers indicating units are repeated and some are completely left out. The difference between times of maneuvers or altitude isn’t specified well and they’re just extremely confusing. It feels like this book was rushed to be printed and they missed some pretty basic errors.

Rating: 3/5

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Book Review: The Last Battle

Peter Hart’s new book, The Last Battle, is a study of the concluding months of the First World War. Beginning at the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, Hart takes readers through the dying days of the war and reveals its ferocity and brutality even with hours before armistice. I was wildly impressed with this book and enjoyed it much more than I originally thought.

Praise:

Hart’s use of quotes is fantastic and there is rarely a page without one. The large number of quotes paint a great picture of the soldiers’ experiences. Many of the quotes are from British troops, but it includes a number of Commonwealth troops. American, French, and German perspectives also add to the book. Since Hart is an oral historian, he knows how to use quotations perfectly in his books. If you have read Gallipoli, you will not be dissapointed. here are a few maps included of certain battles as well as an overview of Flanders in Sept. 1918. Hart includes the sectors of each individual army and breaks it down by division. Chapter 1 is very useful since it reviews the effects of Operation Michael (Kaiserschlacht) on the Western Front. A casualty list gives readers an idea of how costly this war has proven. A lot of people would assume this book is about the infantry. The book includes a large number of sources from artillery and air units, including vivid descriptions of dogfights and devastating air crashes. This book gives you a feeling, something not many history books do. When you know a war is drawing to an end, each lost life you read about hurts just a bit more. Men die with weeks, days, hours, even minutes before peace. It feels horrible when you know somebody is so close to being safe and returning home to their mothers, wives, and children.

Criticism:

I have little criticism about this book, but the main thing is the lack of German or French sources. There are a decent number, but a few more wouldn’t hurt at all. The maps were VERY confusing at first thanks to complex objective lines, but there’s a key so it’s not as bad as it sounds.

Rating:

5/5

Book Review: Ramillies 1706

Ramillies, by Michael McNally, is not a recent book from Osprey Publishing, but I purchased it relatively recently and felt reviewing it would be fine. Published in 2014, this book recounts the Duke of Marlborough’s victory over a Franco-Spanish-Bavarian force in the Flanders campaign of the War of Spanish Succession. “Marlborough’s tactical masterpiece” according to the subtitle, is arguably more important than the 1704 Battle of Blenheim since Ramillies effectively destroyed all resistance of Bourbon forces in the Low Countries in a spectacular battle with wonderful tactics by Marlborough’s Allied force.

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Praise

McNally does a fantastic job with the ORBAT in this book, listing the origins of each regiment in the battle and the number of battalions. Each brigade and division lists the number of troops in the formation as well as divisional and brigade commanders. The illustrations by Sean O’Brogain are wonderful and very dynamic, showing all aspects of the battle and are placed very appropriately in accordance with the text. Sometimes Osprey doesn’t do this well, but it is spot on with Ramillies. The pictures always show what is going on during the battle and reflect specific events talked about, like the routing Bourbon right or the wounding of James Gardiner. There are some very nice prints put in the book as well as some really nice photographs of the Ramillies battlefield. The maps in this book are very well done too.

Criticism

The chronology section is lacking and quite complex, so I was dissapointed in that. The book also makes a big deal out of the battlefield being less flat than you’d expect, but the maps are still really flat. It’s just contradicting. Apart from that, there really aren’t any problems with this.

I enjoyed this book, especially since I don’t know too much about the War of Spanish Succession. Osprey does a good job with this one, and McNally also does a good job, especially with the order of battle. There’s a lot of interesting tactics and descriptions of the contrasting styles of warfare from the French and Allied forces.

Rating: 4.5/5

Also, if you want to see the illustrator, Sean O’Brogain, travelling around Ramillies, please visit his blog here.

Book Review: Passchendaele

Nick Lloyd released his new book just before the centennial of the Battle of Passchendale (also known as 3rd Ypres). Passchendaele is synonymous with mud and death as British and Dominion troops clashed with Germans over a small ridge and a few wooded plots of land. Names like Polygon Wood. Poperinge, Langemark, and Menin Road became etched in history as some of the bloodiest spots of the entire war. The churned up countryside of Flanders became home to the bodies of 670,000 soldiers and millions of horses. This gruesome battle would put the new British “bite and hold” tactics against the might on the Hindenburg Line.

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Praise:

The book opens with the failure of the Nivelle Offensive by the French in the spring of 1917 and then gives a small description of the Battle for Messines Ridge. These two battles help one understand the background for the Battle of Passchendaele and illustrates the new tactical revolutions the British command underwent. Every chapter opens with a quote about the battle and uncovers some of the feelings of general and private alike. One harrowing quote that opens a chapter is an excerpt from a soldier’s letter to his parents: “Our dead were lying in heaps. It was the worst slaughter I had ever seen.” Another quote in the book was by Hermann von Kuhl, the Chief of Staff to Crown Prince Rupprecht. Kuhl said that “no division could last more than a fortnight in this Hell.” Passchendaele is full of primary sources from both the British and the German forces. Lloyd, a professor at Kings College London, has great access to the collections of the Imperial War Museum and the British National Archives. He also traveled to Germany to collect sources at the Bundesarchiv and the Bayerisches Hauptstaatarchiv. He also has sources from the Australians and Canadians, who played a major role in the latter stages of the battle. The book has about two Victoria Cross citations per chapter during the battle showing the incredible heroism in the face of danger. Lance Corporal Walter Peeler and Sergeant Lewis McGee both captured German machine gun bunkers by themselves under fire at Poelcappe and Zonnebecke.  There are plenty of other amazing stories of soldiers such as them in the battle. Lloyd’s maps are very good too, indicating the objectives which troops were ordered to take. The photographs are very good and one which was very striking was Polygon Wood during the battle, completely leveled by the scars of artillery. The book really shows the internal struggles between the English command. The conflict between Haig and his subordinates caused many problems, as did the fights between the Army generals also, notably Henry Plumer and Sir Hugh Gough. Lloyd’s writing shows how horrible the battle was for a common soldier, shuffling closer to death in a wet, muddy hole. I have used Lloyd’s other books in historical essays and the amount of detail you can gather from his books is astonishing. This book continues that trend. A perfect blend of historical sources, bravery, high command, and gripping battle descriptions make this one of the standout history books of the year. The book also ends quite abruptly without any description of future events, which bothered me a little.

Criticism:

There is not much that I have a problem with in the book. I initially had some problems recognizing when the Battle of Passchendaele officially started. You could easily read a good deal into the book thinking you were still at the Battle of Messines Ridge. Another point which sometimes bothered me was the cutbacks to the Italian Front. The Battle of Capporetto was happening during the Battle of Passchendaele, so Lloyd mentions the fighting in Italy every few chapters. It doesn’t make much of a difference with or without it. Capporetto simply reveals a little more of the character of David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister of Britain at the time.

Passchendaele is a great book to fill in a gap on the Western Front history section. A book like this really needed to be published to tell how much this battle influenced British tactics and damaged the mind of the common soldier. The book also reveals how much of a stalemate the war was in late 1917. Many people simply label the German troops as poor at this point, simply due to the knowledge of the Entente victory in 1918. This is not true. German forces showed incredible resistance and strength during the battle, taking back the ridge within two weeks. Nick Lloyd is a great author and this book makes it to the top of the tree for the holidays this year.

Rating:

4.5 / 5

Book Review: Dutch Armies of the 80 Years’ War 1568-1648 (2)

Osprey Publishing recently released the second part of their Dutch 80YW Men at Arms Series. I reviewed Bouko de Groot’s first title already, so it’s time to complete the series. Book two covers the cavalry, artillery, and engineers which de Groot mentions were key to the war. The war was full or sieges and a surprising amount of trench warfare. As well as Maurice of Nassau’s infantry reforms, he also changed the cavalry and used much more artillery than his Spanish opponents. The sieges of major cities would require strong artillery, so Maurice made sure his Dutch forces were equipped well. His engineers were also trained in bridging, fieldworks, entrenchments, and more.

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Praise:

de Groot’s previous book was great and sold out on the Osprey Website quickly according to their company blog. This book is reminiscent of his last work. Each of the branches is split up clearly so you can see the evolution form the three stages of conflict. A map showing all of the sieges in the war is provided for you as well to give the reader an idea of how important siege tactics would become during the war. There are some interesting illustrations, one of which is part of the drill manual for firing a pistol on horseback. Many people who study pike & shot era warfare know of the complex manuals of musketeer drills, but this was the first I had seen of a cavalry drill. Bouko de Groot gives specifications of each artillery piece the Dutch used throughout the war and Gerry Embleton’s colour plates are superb, showing limbered artillery. One interesting point the author makes is that “[the] 80 Years’ War changed the craft of war into a science,” and his section on engineering is a proof of that. From an improvised dam made of horses to Friese ruiter, the engineers of Maurice’s army were incredibly capable and quick thinking. There is also a general round up of the whole army towards the back and it talks about weapons, munitions, formations, and command structures which is nice to review.

Criticism:

The map at the beginning is very informative, but extremely jumbled and hard to understand. It takes a while to locate a specific battle you are trying to find. In some of the sections, I was also left with wanting more. I would like to have known what other field fortifications the engineers made, how forts were built, more information on the cavalry such as the horses they used, and more on trench warfare. The notion of Dutch and Spanish soldiers tossing grenades at one another, firing wheelocks at close range, and getting stuck in with a sword is absolutely fantastic, and I was left with a feeling of not being satiated.

The book overall is very good and if you have the infantry book, I would highly recommend this book as a companion. Embleton’s plates do not disappoint, de Groot explains everything a novice would wonder about equipment (improving much on last time), and covers the army as a whole. De Groot also has a Facebook page devoted to the 80 Years War, so why not give it a look here. There is info on flags, reenactments, and some amazing contemporary prints.

Rating: 4/5

Book Review: The Odyssey of Echo Company

The Odyssey of Echo Company by Doug Stanton describes a company of the 101st Airborne Division who are sent to Vietnam in 1968, right at the beginning of the Tet Offensive. Stan Parker, a 19 year old from Indiana, goes against his mother and joins the military. He finds his way into a tight group of young mates united in pain through wounds, loss, and grief. Stan’s rocky relationships with his family and girlfriend affect him and when he returns to America, he is still faced with intense problems and discrimination from those against the war.

Image result for odyssey of echo company

Praise:

One of the more interesting parts of the book is how Stan deals with being home and how cruel the American public was to Vietnam veterans at the time and how emotionally complex it was, and still is, for veterans. The book does draw you in during combat and makes you want to keep reading on. It’s very interesting to see how much emotion is involved in the Vietnam War, and the book definitely captures that.

Criticism:

It was very easy to tell that Doug Stanton is not a historian by some of the ways he describes things. He calls nearly every weapon a gun and it rolls the eyes of historians who don’t want to hear about the “M60 Gun.” The book’s maps are a little child-like and cartoonish as well, and they illustrate things he has already spoken about in the book: they don’t really serve much of a purpose. There is a lot of stereotyping in this book and cliches you hear in nearly every Vietnam story. They’re all just kids, they don’t know where they are, they’re there to kill communists. This is in pretty much every single Vietnam story out there. One of the things that particularly bothered me was a part of the book in which Stan Parker, as a young boy, has to wear metal knee braces. he is chased by some school bullies and he just takes the braces off and runs in an absolute miracle. Allegedly, Stanton heard all of this from Parker himself and that the book is as historically accurate as possible. The scene is exactly the same in the classic movie, Forrest Gump, which makes me really wonder about the book’s authenticity. In another scene, Stan calls the President and speaks to both Robert McNamara and Lyndon B. Johnson. That just seems insanely unlikely. The fact that the book is based around one person doesn’t give as much freedom as I thought. The book is about Stan, not about Echo Company. He knows and interacts with his company, but there is no real story development about them. The writing style of this book also feels really choppy and clumsy. There’s a huge amount of repetition and it just gets to be tiring after a certain point.

The book just doesn’t live up to the comments on the back. Compared to The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, this book is dwarfed. The writing style isn’t as good, and O’Brien has a first hand experience of death and hell in Vietnam. He knows the feeling to kill. It’s hard to live up to some of the Vietnam greats. This book just seems tacky and not really what I expected.

Rating: 1.5/5

Book Review: The Alps

Stephen O’Shea’s book, The Alps, is a quirky and charming account of the author’s trips through the namesake mountain range. Labelled as a “human history”, I figured I would give it a read after reading the inside cover to discover mentions of Hannibal Barca, Caporetto, Napoleon, and Adolph Hitler. The promises of military history were certainly there for the taking and considering O’Shea’s goof reviews from the press, it seemed like a good read. The book covers the author’s trip spanning Switzerland, France, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Slovenia along arguably the world’s most iconic mountain ranges. Stopping at Mont Blanc, Matterhorn, and other legendary sights, O’Shea’s down-to-earth writing style makes this book one for every historian’s list.

Image result for the alps stephen o'shea

Praise:

O’Shea is one of those writers who takes you with him. When he goes someplace, you go too. Linguists will certainly enjoy  The Alps for its wide use of language. The varying dialects of the Alps are conveyed beautifully by the author throughout the book. He does point out some very intriguing historical sights such as the Isonzo Front museum in Slovenia or Hitler’s Eagles Nest. His remarks on the collective nouns for groups of bikers (a goulash of Hungarian bikers, a pilsner of Czech bikers, etc.) are something to chuckle about too.

Criticism:

Dutchmen beware. O’Shea is custom to cracking jokes about the Dutch throughout the book as they appear to be the brunt of many jokes made by him or any Swiss or French he encounters. The most disappointing thing for me was the lack of military history in the book. I was enticed by promises of Caporetto, Napoleon’s Italy campaign, and more but was rewarded with maybe two or three pages entirely on each. This was certainly a disappointment; after all, this is a military history blog. The book was placed in the history section of my library, but, it would be much more properly placed in travel. It is more of a travel-history rather than history. He visits places, discusses the history, and describes his experience vividly. It just seems to lack a lot of military history, and focuses more on general history.

For any Hapsburg, language, Sound of Music, mountaineering, or travel enthusiast; this is a spectacular book. For military historians? No. I certainly enjoyed reading Stephen O’Shea and I am by no account saying “do not read his book.” This is just not what somebody interested in the battles of the Isonzo would want to pick up. Luckily for me, I am a Hapsburg and language junkie so this was perfectly fine for me. Notably, O’Shea has also written a book on travelling the battlefields of the Western Front in World War I. I am certainly intrigued and hope for a more military-centred book.

Rating: 3/5